Vermeer – ‘Woman in Blue, Reading a Letter’
(This has got to be one of my favourite paintings. Ok. I know it’s not abstract . . . . . . . . )
August is going to be a busy month. With a group of five others from the Fine Art degree course, I am making art in a disused building, an old auction house in the town centre, intending to open our exhibition to the public at the end of our four weeks there, to show what we have been doing in response to the site.
The building has awakened quite a bit of curiosity. It has a promisingly colourful past. However, so far it as all hearsay for which there is very little official corroboration. It’s part of a terrace of houses and must be more than 200 years old. It looks quite unremarkable from the outside, but from what we have heard it has been at various times a hospital, a brothel, a zoo, an auction house, and an estate agents office. I also wonder if it featured in the fire that burnt down the building opposite in 1915? And whether it sustained actual damage along with the surrounding streets during the German bombardment of the town in 1948? Whatever the actual details, it has obviously been a buiding that has seen a thing or two over the years, and has survived to tell the tale.
Which is why I am working on making an abstract map for the place. Not a map of the building as we see it, or even as it has been, but a map that alludes to the different worlds that it has been a part of.
So my mind goes back to Vermeer, and the way in which he included maps in his paintings.
Vermeer – ‘Soldier and Laughing Girl’ c1658
Of course it’s difficult to see in an illustration this small, but in the original paintings, the details on the maps he included are very intriguing. According to someone who knows a bit about the geographical and political landscape of the Netherlands in the late 1600s, the maps portrayed are not straightforward reproductions of maps that existed at the time. To the contemporary knowledgeable person in the 1650s, the map painted here in ‘Soldier and Laughing Girl’ would have communicated another sphere of information, and manifested something of the artist’s thinking. The presence of the soldier in the painting may well have underlined the presence of a subtle expression of a political or strategic comment by Vermeer.
Vermeer – ‘The Art of Painting’, c1666
Vermeer’s most intriguing and complex painting is ‘The Art of Painting’ , also called ‘The Allegory of Painting’, one of his personal favourites. Apart from the fact that it features the artist himself, albeit from behind, the whole back wall is dominated by a large map. Sadly, I do not know enough about this to explain why Vermeer has made that particular map especially for his allegory, but what I do know is that he is pointing in a very deliberate way to the co-existence of different worlds. In a small space, this painting although his largest is only 51″ x 43″, he has created three different spheres of existence, three different worlds. The viewer is in his/her own world, separated from the interior scene by the heavy drape in the foreground; the artist and his model occupy the main pictorial stage; the map on the wall talks about a third world. You could argue that the central visual scene has its own ambiguities, because the model is playing the part of another, a non-mortal being, which conceivably could be construed as pointing to yet another layer of meaning, and a fourth world in fact. For all their quiet contemplative moods and their overtly unassuming subject matter, Vermeer’s paintings hide an intricate network of life stories and intrigue.
Then he went on to the furthest boundaries of human knowledge by bringing the other worlds of the cosmos right into his paintings with ‘The Astronomer’ (below) in 1668. Just think about it. An astronomer. An unassuming scholar of the universe. Yet the world was turned upside down by Galileo and his telescope. Worlds within worlds, beneath an understated exterior. Multifaceted. Multilayered. A starting point for rumour and conjecture. A bit like the old auction house in fact?